I’ve been watching a lot of Icelandic TV series on Netflix lately. And as a result, I’ve become interested in the landscape of that fragment of Europe sitting in the North Atlantic: the barren hills, the glaciers, the stark mountains. Would it be possible to walk there, I wondered? To find out, I ordered two books on the subject: Jamie Bowlby-Whiting’s first person account of crossing Iceland from south to north on foot with his brother Elliott, Across the Moon: Two Unprepared Brothers Traverse Iceland on Foot, and a guide to walking in Iceland, written by Paddy Dillon and published by Cicerone.
The subtitle of Bowlby-Whiting’s book tells most of the story: neither he nor his brother had any experience hiking before they attempted their walk across Iceland’s bleak and dangerous mountains. Their gear was useless, they weren’t physically up to hiking 25 or 30 kilometres per day while carrying 30 kilograms of gear (and not many people are–myself included, as I discovered in Ontario two years ago), and their only map covered just a fraction of their route. Because they weren’t prepared, they made many mistakes. They tried heading directly north, using a compass, and as a result they found their way blocked by raging glacial rivers which they had to wade across. Their packs were too heavy, so they got rid of most of their food; they ended up living on chocolate and uncooked ramen noodles for the remainder of their trip. Nothing cooperated: not the terrain, not the weather. A nearby volcano was threatening to erupt, and everyone told them they shouldn’t be walking near it. And yet they somehow managed to complete their journey. They were lucky, I think, because things could easily have gone very wrong for them. Well, even more wrong.
Across the Moon is a self-published book, and although I typically don’t bother to read anything that couldn’t find a regular publisher, I’m glad I made an exception this time. Bowlby-Whiting is an engaging narrator, frank about his mistakes and the liberties he takes with the truth early in the book. I like the book’s structure as well: reflective chapters about Bowlby-Whiting’s life and his relationship with his brother alternate with chapters about the walk itself. It’s a fun read.
And yet, I can’t believe the two brothers attempted this hike, given their experience and their equipment. Let me give you an example. Bowlby-Whiting always took off his shoes while wading through those glacial torrents. His brother Elliott did not. Now, everything I’ve read about fording rivers has said that it’s a terrible idea to do it without footwear: rocks can be sharp or slippery and it’s easier to fall when you’re barefoot. In his book on walking in Iceland, Paddy Dillon suggests carrying a pair of Crocs for river crossings (and as camp shoes). So does Justin Lichter, the author of Trail Tested: A Thru-Hiker’s Guide to Ultralight Hiking and Backpacking. “If the ford is tough then do not go barefoot!” Lichter says. “If the river is really gentle wear shoes when fording a river. They help with traction and protect your feet in case there are jagged rocks in the water.” So whether the ford is tough or not, you protect your feet, according to Lichter.
But wearing shoes while crossing those rivers didn’t help Elliott in the end. His shoes were cheap, you see, and they shrank and twisted as they dried. He couldn’t wear them afterwards and ended up walking the final 200 kilometres with flip-flops taped to his feet. I can’t imagine that. The moral of the story: don’t buy cheap shoes, and always carry a pair of decent lightweight sandals.
Flip-flops. I remember seeing a young Canadian walking the Camino wearing flip-flops and carrying a hockey duffel bag instead of a backpack. He was from Kelowna, I think. Everyone has their own way, I guess. And the Bowlby-Whitings managed to complete a trek I’d never attempt, even with preparation and decent gear. So who am I to say?
Walking and Trekking in Iceland is a completely different kind of book. In fact, it’s the kind of book the brothers might’ve considered consulting before setting out on their trek. Dillon describes both day-hikes and multi-day treks in different parts of the island. He also explains important stuff about Iceland that foreigners might not know–like how to buy topographical maps of the island, how to get access to private mountain huts, how the country’s bus service works, and when to go if you’re thinking about a walking holiday there. (August is busy and before June it’s too cold.) It’s the kind of book I’d have in a Ziplock bag in my coat pocket or at the top of my backpack if I were walking in Iceland, the kind of book one could use to plan a walking holiday in that country.
So read Across the Moon for a story about what not to do, one that luckily has a happy ending, and read Walking and Trekking in Iceland if you find yourself thinking about visiting that country.